As individuals, we most often focus upon a single energy technology: One we particularly like (e.g., solar or wind), or one we particularly dislike (e.g., fossil fuel or nuclear).
And then we all start arguing.
At Bell Labs I researched semiconductor devices for fiber optic communications. These were kissing cousins to solar cells, and I got to know a lot of people in the solar cell field (including the founders of two U.S. solar energy companies). So, naturally, for me, that "single energy technology" was solar cells. But for years, my friends told me that "when the cost of cells falls below $X.YZ / Watt, they will take over the world!" And then they fell below that cost. And they did not take over the world. I was clearly missing something. So I began reading almost every article, paper and book on energy I could find. And I eventually figured out what I'd missed: Sustainable energy is not just about the component technologies, it's about how they fit together to create a complete energy system. Put another way, the individual technologies are only pieces of a much larger puzzle. And, frustratingly, many of those pieces still have shapes that are blurred, ill-defined, and/or changing with time.
But why not build an energy system based on just one "piece," for instance solar cells? Because, for now, no single "piece" can affordably produce the amount of energy we need, when we need it. To illustrate, say that solar cell efficiencies suddenly skyrocketed, and costs plummeted. Wouldn't that make an all-solar energy system possible? Yes, but only if you were willing to spend your evenings in the dark, either shivering or sweating. The problem? Solar cells require intense sunlight to produce energy, which only happens (with luck) near midday. But our power consumption peaks in the evenings. So for a solar-based energy system to work, we would also need an effective and affordable way of storing huge quantities of midday energy for many hours - a technology "piece" we do not yet have. Or, if you lived on the U.S. east coast, you might tap into solar cells on the west coast, where the solar peak comes three hours later. But this would require another missing technological piece: efficient and affordable long-distance power transmission lines. So, even with miraculously improved solar cells, we would still need other (miraculously improved) pieces to build an energy system. And without such miracles, it's more likely that we will need many different energy-producing pieces, and many different complementary energy storage/transmission/ . . . pieces.
In my class, and now through this website, we'll examine the science and technology behind those energy "pieces," trying to define at least their present day shapes. But the real goal will be to then use that knowledge to figure out how those pieces might someday complete the "puzzle" of a truly sustainable energy system.
Web Notes vs. Class Notes?
For my university class, lectures had to be of fixed length and number. That meant that I had to continuously edit and rearrange things as I added new material to the class. On the other hand, because my students were responsible for all class material, the exact order of presentation was not critical. Which freed me to enhance learning by revisiting critical topics multiple times, treating them in increasing depth, weaving them together with related topics.
But this new website is intended as an online resource for you, the citizen-researcher. And you will likely arrive here searching for information on a single specific energy topic. I hope to lure you into broader study. But to facilitate your immediate research, I am rewriting my class notes into what I will call "web notes." For these web notes:
- Material is reordered so that single topics are largely covered in a single place (a single web note set, or consecutive sets).
- Web note sets are of whatever length their topic naturally demands.
- However, because some topics (e.g., different energy technologies) share the same issue, discussion of that issue may be repeated in multiple web note sets.
- Web note listings (immediately below) incorporate a drop down outline of each note set.
- Web note PowerPoint files also begin with a full outline.
- A companion Resources Webpage is provided for each web note set. On it I post any videos used in the note set, along with any particularly noteworthy figures.
- The companion Resources Webpage also provides full citations to articles and papers I found particularly useful in preparing that note set. Links are also given (and, where possible, a cached copy is provided).
One year after creating WeCanFigureThisOut.org in the August of 2017, I am about two thirds through this process of expanding my earlier class notes into web notes.
I welcome any comments you have on the note sets I have completed. I also welcome your input on any topics or questions you would like me to deal with in future note sets. (My current plans are given in grayed-out titles and drop-down outlines).
Please send your suggestions to me via this website's CONTACT WEBPAGE.
||Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air
David J.C. MacKay
Downloadable for free at: Without the Hot Air.com
Or as a paperback from: UIT Cambridge England,